Category Archives: Plants

Blue Beads In The Woods

Blue beads on clintonia, September 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

In September keep an eye out for blue beads in the woods.  Yellow Clintonia has gone to seed.

Clintonia borealis is native to the boreal forest but also grows in western Pennsylvania, especially in the Laurel Highlands.  I was surprised to find this one a few years ago in Moraine State Park.

If you find green beads, come back later for the beautiful blue.

Unripe bluebeads, starting to turn blue (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

Blue Flower Beverage

Chickory in bloom (photo by Kate St. John)

For months we’ve been seeing chicory’s daisy-like blue flowers blooming by the roads and trails.

Chicory (Cichorium intybus) is native to Europe where it’s been cultivated as food for people and forage for livestock since at least Roman times.  Settlers brought it to North America for food and it soon became a weed.  In Colorado it’s listed as a noxious weed.

We eat chicory’s leaves, buds and roots but we call it by different names depending on its purpose.  The varieties grown for leaves and buds are called endive, radicchio, Belgian endive, sugarloaf (and others). The variety grown for roots is called chicory.  Just to confuse things, in the U.S. chicory’s close relative curly endive (Cichorium endivia) is sometimes called chicory.

Chicory roots are minced, roasted, ground, and then blended with coffee or brewed as a substitute.  Since chicory has no caffeine, it’s a good coffee substitute if you like the taste. Otherwise people drink it straight when they can’t get coffee, usually during economic crises and wars such as the Great Depression and World War II.  New Orleans still prefers chicory-blend coffee, a tradition since the Civil War.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If you eat chicory from the wild you’ll find it’s bitter compared to cultivated varieties. Remember, don’t forage by busy roads. Those plants absorb pollution from vehicles and residue from pesticide and defoliant sprays.

Read more about chicory, foraging and brewing at these links:

(chicory photo by Kate St. John. coffee cup from Wikimedia Commons; click in the caption to see the original)

Great Lobelia

Great lobelia closeup (photo by Kate St. John)

When I wrote about cardinal flower in late August Carol Smith remarked, “By now my cardinal flower is finished blooming. Yesterday we saw three hummers at one time sipping nectar from great blue lobelia flowers. Even though they aren’t red, they are apparently a good nectar source and … they bloom a little later. “

Perhaps the hummingbirds saw the flowers’ resemblance.  Great lobelia or great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) is in the same genus as cardinal flower.   The plants are a similar height and the flowers a similar shape.

Great lobelia (left) and cardinal flowers (right) are similar in shape, though not color

Great lobelia grows in medium to wet soil so it tolerates drier locations than cardinal flower.  The blue one will grow in a drainage ditch by the trail; the red one always has wet feet. 

I don’t have to bushwhack to get close to great lobelia.  I took this photo while standing above the plant. 

Great lobelia in bloom from above (photo by Kate St. John)

Notice how the flowers spiral around the stem — another example of the Fibonacci sequence that I wrote about this week.

Big and blue this lobelia is great.

(photos of great lobelia by Kate St. John; cardinal flower by Tim Vechter)

Why Sunflowers Follow The Sun

Sunflower field (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Did you know that young sunflowers follow the sun? They face east at sunrise, track the sun across the sky, and face west at sunset.  The next morning they’re all facing east again!

This trait is called heliotropism but only young sunflowers do it.

Adult sunflowers always face east.  That’s why this field is not facing the sun in the late afternoon — the flowers are (probably) adults.

Sunflowers NOT facing the sun (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

How do sunflowers do this? 

Their secret is explained this Science Magazine video.

Read more in this NPR article from August 2016.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals. video from Science Magazine on YouTube)

Pros and Cons of Stinging Nettle

Close-up of the top of stinging nettle (photo by Kate St. John)

Right now it’s too hot to wear long pants while hiking, but I wear them anyway to protect my legs from poison ivy and stinging nettle.

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is hard to avoid in early September. Three to seven feet tall, it leans into the trail completely coated with hollow stinging hairs that contain histamines and painful chemicals.  The whole plant is shown below with the closeup circled in red.

Stinging nettle with crown circled in red (photo by Kate St. John)
Stinging nettle with crown circled in red (photo by Kate St. John)

A gentle brush against the plant causes the hollow hairs to detach and become needles in your skin.  The sting is memorable. For those desperate to hold the plant a firm grasp flattens the hairs so that fewer penetrate.   This is counter-intuitive and not for the faint of heart.

Closeup of stinging nettle needles (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

That’s the bad news, here’s the good.  Stinging nettle is the host plant for quite a few butterflies and moths. Here are two North American butterflies whose caterpillars rely on it:

The Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta)

Red admiral butterfly on milkweed (photo by Dianne Machesney)

and the Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis)

Question mark butterfly dorsal view (photo by Kate St. John)
Question mark butterfly dorsal view (photo by Kate St. John)
Question mark butterfly showing its punctuation (photo by Kate St. John)

As with many things, a closer look reveals both pros and cons.

UPDATE:  Another good thing (sort of). Several readers have pointed out that stinging nettle is edible. Yes, it is.  My 1975 edition of The Joy of Cooking has a recipe for nettle soup. The first step is: “Using rubber gloves to protect you from the stinging nettles, remove the central stem from 1 quart of young nettle tops.”
You’d have to gather a quart of young nettle tops. No thank you!

(photo credits: green stinging nettle and question mark photos by Kate St. John; closeup of stinging nettle stingers from Wikimedia Commons, red admiral butterfly by Dianne Machesney)

Blooming Where It’s Wet

Ruby-throated hummingbird at cardinal flower (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

Ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) are on migration now, heading for their wintering grounds in Central America.  On the way they look for red flowers to sip.

This native perennial — cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) — is one of their favorites. 

Look for cardinal flower along creeks and marshes. You’ll find it blooming where it’s wet.

(photo by Lauri Shaffer at, video by the Capital Naturalist on YouTube)

An Assortment Of Flowers

  • Biennial gaura (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s an assortment of wildflowers found in western Pennsylvania this month.  Many are blooming. One has a fruit.

For fun, a quiz: Can you match their names to the list below?

  • Cup plant
  • Partridge pea
  • Jack in the pulpit
  • Joe pye-weed
  • Biennial gaura
  • Green-headed coneflower
  • Touch-me-not

(photos by Kate St. John)

Who Eats Mayapples?

Ripe mayapple fruit (photos by Dianne Machesney)
Ripe mayapple fruit (photos by Dianne Machesney)

Remember mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum), those umbrella-leaf woodland plants whose single drooping white flowers bloom in April or May?

Mayapple in flower with twin leaves (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Mayapple in bloom (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

By August each fertilized flower has turned into a fruit, a mayapple.

The entire mayapple plant is poisonous but there’s a brief window in August when the fruit is ripe and safe to eat.  Chipmunks and deer know this, too, so if you want to risk tasting a ripe fruit, you’ll have to beat them to it.

On Throw Back Thursday, read about the right conditions for Eating Mayapples.

p.s. Be cautious. I have never eaten a mayapple and I don’t intend to start now.

(photo credits: mayapple fruit by Dianne Machesney, blooming mayapple plant from Wikimedia Commons, click on the caption to see the original)

Berries For Birds

Elderberries at Jennings, 4 Aug 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Elderberries at Jennings, 4 Aug 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Ripe elderberries (Sambucus genus) are hard to find this month. They’re so popular with birds that the ripe ones disappear immediately.

The cluster, above, was the only purple one I found last week. The rest were carefully picked over, leaving green berries and bare stems.

Elderberry stem, leaves, unripe fruit (photo by Kate St. John)
Elderberry stem, leaves, unripe fruit, Aug 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Other fruits await birds, too:  black raspberries (Rubus genus) in the thickets, hackberries (Celtis genus) in the trees, and porcelain berries (Ampelopsis glandulosa) on the vine.  Unfortunately, the porcelain berries are invasive.

Ripening black raspberries, June 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Ripening hackberries, July 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Ripening porcelain berries (photo by Kate St. John)

It won’t be long before the poke berries turn purple.

Green pokeberries, not ripe yet in early August (photo by Kate St. John)
Green pokeberries, not ripe yet in early August (photo by Kate St. John)

It’s a colorful conspiracy to tempt birds to eat the fruit and disperse the seeds, perhaps far away on migration.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Flowers in a Purple Theme

Scaly blazing star, July 2018 (photo by Dianne Machesney)
Scaly blazing star, July 2018 (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Yellow flowers are abundant in the summer while some of the rarest flowers are purple. Here are four rare plants I’ve never seen.

Dianne Machesney visited Lynx Prairie in Adams County, Ohio in late July to see scaly blazing star (Liatris squarrosa), above. It doesn’t occur in Pennsylvania though we have it’s cousin dense blazing star (Liatris spicata) at Jennings Prairie.  The two plants differ in this way: “Scaly” flowers are clustered at the tip, “dense” flowers coat the long spike.

Lynx Prairie is also famous for these rarities shown left-to-right below: American bluehearts (Buchnera americana), crane fly orchid (Tipularia discolor) and crested coralroot (Hexalectris spicata).

Lynx Prairie in Shawnee State Forest is a great place to find rare flowers in a purple theme.

(photos by Dianne Machesney)